What constitutes jazz composition rarely gets talked about. There is rarely a need.

The basic difficulty is simple enough: what is and isn’t composed. Or what is and isn’t improvised might be another way of looking at the whole subject.

The latter distinction takes into consideration the acceptance that improvisation is a form of collective composition. Jamming tunes and calling the results composition is also sometimes a factor on some records.

Is this better or worse than other more formal forms of composition that combine written and spontaneous elements?

And how does studio composition (ie stitching together many different recordings, overdubs and remixed elements to suit the demands of a record) fit in? Surely this is composition even if it might be seen differently in terms of production or arranging.

Moving beyond what is and isn’t composed to the issue of whether a piece might have jazz sensibility, contain a basic reference to the form, issues like that, is critical too. That’s because if basic reference to a jazz flavour – ie the affinity with some notion of improvisation and a semblance of one or other of jazz-derived forms – isn’t to be discerned then it’s not jazz composition, simple as that. Instead it is another style of notated music or notated music learnt and reproduced even without sheet music in front of the player emanating from another tradition, quite often western classical music.

Memory is more of a factor than whether the music is notated or not. If it’s not sheet music on stands, musicians performing memorised parts of highly elaborate arrangements without deviation from the composed piece is basically the same approach. What is then produced is not an improvisation at all even if it might on the surface seem to be jazz. Highly arranged orchestrated music which more obviously is jazz because of its idiomatic phrasing and syncopated feel and so on actually risks ironing out all semblance of improvisation even with the presence of jazz language.

Even though most jazz listeners assume improvisation is high up the agenda in jazz performance there may well be less of a pure improvisation component than listeners might notice. Even free improv, which injects more spontaneous composition into the raw ingredients of a performance, isn’t completely immune from pre-digested unforgotten routines that are then elaborated on without the audience actually being aware of the process.

How random the music is from performance to performance also matters to some theorists. And this is an important consideration when thinking about how fresh an improvisation actually is. It’s rare (impossible?) for a piece to be completely reimagined from performance to performance even if nothing is quite the same twice and room is made for new treatments which are then delivered.

The whole subject of composition is a subject worth returning to but for now next time you see someone listed as, for instance a guitarist/composer or a pianist/composer think of this: what does composing really mean for a jazz player? And where does the composition end and the improvising really begin? SG

A model of jazz composition, top, from The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963, Impulse!) harnessing group improvisation, African American and Andalusian elements via Ellingtonia and intellectual freedom through discipline and the anarchy of unrivalled virtuosity and imagination

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Broadway Market’s Kansas Smitty’s in east London

Truly neighbourhood Hackney, train and tube stations are a brisk walk or cycle away, head past the Regent’s canal, the barges tied up, the giant gas holders dwarfing the hidden circling streets. 

Co-owned by Jack Abraham and reedist Giacomo Smith, Kansas Smitty’s is approaching its first birthday this spring. Walk in from Broadway Market it’s a regular fairly trendy hipsterish bar on street level, take the stairs down, past the old tape-to-tape recorder placed there as design object the place is kitted out as a very small low-ceilinged jazz club with not a huge amount of circular tables in front of the stand, good sightlines, and clear-as-a-bell natural sound. At the back punters in the corner can lean against an upright piano with its lid down, a Wharfedale speaker propped on top. The toilets have ‘WC Fields’ signs on them. 

Regular jazz nights include the Shed and Basement Tapes sessions, bop, mainstream and trad catered for among the styles, non-musical attractions include poker on offer and plenty of cocktails. You drink wine out of little tumblers. The bar has its house band based around a core of eight players.

Ross Stanley, left, on Hammond organ; Alex Garnett; Smitty’s co-owner Giacomo Smith who announced the band; and Artie Zaitz

With a low ceiling, green painted walls, bulbous lights fixed to the sides, the place pretty dark, a fragrant scent introduced via the air conditioning triggered by a multi-tasking Giacomo, vinyl spinning, the needle lifted and LPs flipped by bar manager Victoria, the place has an easy intimacy.

Playing on this latest running of the Basement Tapes were Alex Garnett on baritone sax, new straightahead guitar hero in the making the south-east London based Grant Green-influenced Artie Zaitz (Exodus), classy Velocity trio and Rebecca Ferguson accompanist Ross Stanley on Hammond B3, and Scott Hamilton drummer Steve Brown. Towards the end of the evening the Zaitz Basement Tapes combo were joined by alto saxophonist Rachael Cohen for a brief guest spot.

The quartet opened up with Garnett’s Golsonian homage ‘So Long’ followed by the flowing mellifluous strains of Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Con Alma.’

As the set developed Zaitz quietly asserted himself in the ensemble interplay, tremendous facility as he power slid over the frets, sometimes octave-doubling, sometimes tickling the strings to tease out some new timbral effect, a rootsy downhome feel cultivated and encouraged, the blues never far away whether he was playing standing or preferring to sit, the guitar in his lap, picking out the harmonies tossed over from the Hammond that he simply needed and was compelled musically to respond to. 

The fruity Ronnie Cuber-like personality and sound Garnett on number after number projected allowed for plenty of soul to seep out washed over by velvety glissy sweeps from Stanley while Brown kept very proper time. Zaitz had fun introducing ‘All the Things You Weren’t,’ and later the band soared into overdrive on ‘The Fox’ winning the room over in the second set with the infectious ‘Boogaloo Magoo’ written by Zaitz’s dad.

The inclusion of Neal Hefti’s ‘Lil Darlin’’ from The Atomic Mr Basie didn’t do much for me (it was glacially slow) although this step change applied the brakes successfully enough and a certain relief from the more uptempo numbers momentarily paving the way for the extra motion and skip provided by Rachael Cohen joining for the Afro-Cuban classic ‘Tin Tin Deo,’ Cohen harmonising neatly with Garnett.

Bethnal Green gas holders, near the Regent’s Canal, and close to Broadway market

The audience made their way into the London Fields night with the jaunty melody of Monk’s ‘Bye Ya’ in the air ringing out as much as to say from all the band and the convivial mood of the evening: now don’t be a stranger.

Story/pics: Stephen Graham